The wild reputation of the Mekong’s “banana pancake trail” is largely a thing of the past. Many formerly raucous backpacker hotspots have settled down, replacing hard-drinking tourists with traveling families looking for culture, food, and fun activities for all ages.
Consider Laos, where Vang Vieng used to be Exhibit One of the worst excesses of backpacker tourism. A 2012 government campaign cleared out most of the riverside bars and enforced stricter safety regulations for activities on the Nam Song River.
Today, aside from river tubing, you can also choose a number of family-friendly activities: rent a kayak for a different river experience, or take your family on a sunset cruise by boat for a quiet but scenic end-of-day trip. Beyond the river, you can also go hiking up the mountains to Nam Xay or Pha Ngeun viewpoints; visit the caves; walk across the Blue Bridge; or ride ponies across the rice fields.
In Thailand, the Mekong-side city of Udon Thani offers families the chance to experience almost the full extent of the country’s unique culture.
The kids can let loose at Playport Udon Thani Water Park, where pools and water rides can help cool visitors off from the local humid weather. You can also camp overnight at Phu Foi Lom Eco Park, a 76,000-acre reservation with strawberry farms and nature trails that let you see the local fauna up close.
Finally, don’t leave Udon Thani without visiting the Red Lotus Sea—where pink water lilies bloom in abundance between October and January, blanketing the surface of the lake with pink all the way to the horizon.
Finally, Cambodia delivers its best family-friendly experiences in Siem Reap, where you can experience fun for all ages. Take the kids on a trip through time at the Angkor Museum in downtown Siem Reap before riding a tuk-tuk to the Angkor Archaeological Park to see the majestic Khmer temples up close.
Not all Siem Reap attractions should be experienced at arms’ length: the pottery classes at Khmer Ceramics Fine Arts Centre let you literally get your kids’ hands dirty in a good way, turning wet clay into delicately-crafted ceramics.
In the evening, visit a circus tent in downtown Siem Reap to watch the Phare Circus, where Cambodian folklore and culture are blended together into a dizzying, heart-racing acrobatic show. It’s all for a good cause – the circus funds Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a charitable group that uses the performing arts to help rehabilitate children and youth.